(Feast Day ~ December 5)
While fame is not something monks strive for, it has come to some who showed forth such holiness that word of their piety spread far and wide. St. Sabbas (also spelled Saba, Sava, or Savvas) was such a monk. Born in the province of Cappadocia in the year 439, his parents, John and Sophia, took him to a nearby monastery for instruction when he was eight years old. Like our Lord in Nazareth, Sabbas “grew in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God.” The child so loved the monastic life that, after ten years, he was sent to the Holy Land to develop stricter discipline. There he was first under the direction of (St.) Theoktistos and then (St.) Euthymius. This spiritual father predicted that Sabbas would become a leader of monks, found monasteries and be called upon to defend the faith. When St. Euthymius died, Sabbas left the cenobitic (community) life and went into the desert to live as a hermit in a cave, devoting himself entirely to prayer and fasting and to resisting the temptations of the devil.
Before long, other monks were drawn to emulate Sabbas and they settled in the same area of Palestine, each living separately as a hermit with Sabbas, as their abbot, providing spiritual direction. Sabbas had begun his monastic life doing humble work – caring for donkeys and making baskets – and this he expected of those under his direction. He was known to be “severe with demons, but mild with men.”
Encounters with wild animals were to be expected for one living in the wilderness, and St. Sabbas’ most interesting encounter was with a lion. Several versions of the story now exist, one of which relates that the abbot was seen entering the cave of a lion. Some of his monks, who were straining under the discipline of the monastic life, reported to the Patriarch of Jerusalem that Sabbas had been devoured by a lion and should be replaced, when in fact, the saint had simply shared the lion’s den for awhile. When Abbot Sabbas returned, the repentant monks were awed by his ability to tame even wild creatures.
Abbot Sabbas was soon famous as far away as Constantinople and he began to be called upon to argue against heresy, settle theological disputes and to plead with the emperor for justice and clemency in his dealings with the people. St Sabbas continued founding monasteries – seven in all – but his fame brought him out of the solitary life and into the public arena time and time again. Enduring many attacks, holy Sabbas “overcame them all in these ways: those close to him he won over by his goodness and forbearance, the heretics by an unshakeable confession of the Orthodox faith, and the demons with the sign of the Cross and the invocation of God’s aid.” [Prologue From Ochrid]
Living in such close proximity to the place of our Lord’s miraculous birth and of his Crucifixion and Resurrection for our salvation helped St. Sabbas to be steadfast in maintaining the faith unaltered. St. Sabbas also made a contribution to the liturgical life of monasteries, compiling what is called the “Jerusalem Typikon”, for the use of the monks.
Having spent his labors for our Lord, St. Sabbas fell asleep in the year 532 at the age of 93, and was buried in his monastery near Jerusalem (about fifteen miles away, in the Judean desert east of Bethlehem). But even in death, his fame continued. In the next century, as Arab armies were invading Palestine, some of the monks fled to the city of Rome and there founded a monastery in St. Sabbas’ honor. A monastic community continued there and a church remains on this site, the oldest part of the building which still exists dating from the 10th century.
Meanwhile, those monks who stayed in Palestine during the Arab invasions continued to work and pray, certain of the heavenly intercessions of their holy father, St. Sabbas. Western Crusaders occupied Jerusalem in 1099, and when they were pushed out by the Caliph Saladin, they removed the incorrupt body of St. Sabbas and took it to Bari and then Venice, where they enshrined it in the Cathedral of St. Mark. Even under such ignoble circumstances as theft, St. Sabbas’ holy influence continued to spread.
Then, in 1965, in a gesture of ecumenical friendship, the Roman Catholic Pope Paul VI returned the relics of St. Sabbas to the Holy Land and to the Orthodox Church. The Patriarch of Jerusalem at that time, Benedictos, sent a group of clergymen, led by Bishop Vasilios of Jordan, to bring the still incorrupt body back home, and it was placed in the Mar Saba Monastery near Bethelehem. On October 26, 1965, a service to commemorate this return was held in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
We give thanks to God for the life and work of St. Sabbas; may we follow his example of humility and piety; and may his prayers for us be as great as the fame which he had in life and in death.
Sources: Lives of the Saints and Major Feast Days, by Fr. George Poulos; The Lives of the Saints, by Omer Englebert; The Prologue From Ochrid by Bishop (St.) Nikolai Velimirovic; Treasures of the Holy Land by Veselin and Lydia Kesich.